Cameroon’s history points to an outcome that might end its conflict: a return to a federal system in which each linguistic region enjoys a level of autonomy.
In 1884, Germany under Otto von Bismarck established the colony of “Kamerun”. Germany’s colonial situation in Africa changed drastically at the end of the First World War. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all its colonial territories, which were converted into League of Nations mandates. Under this system, the former colonies did not become colonies of the new administering powers – policy control remained with the League of Nations, and the powers were required to follow the League’s instructions.
South Africa was mandated to administer Southwest Africa (now Namibia), France administered Togo, and Belgium administered Rwanda and Burundi. After 1945, the successor United Nations, through its Trusteeship Council, assumed the role of guardian of the mandated territories.
“Kamerun” was a special case: it was mandated to two separate governments. The country’s northwest and southwest were assigned to the UK, which had the colony of Nigeria immediately to the West. The north, east and south were mandated to France, which had its own set of colonies in Central Africa immediately to the east, headquartered in Brazzaville.
A major mountain range between the two regions provided a convenient geographic separation. As the German-speaking populations of “Kamerun” began to fade away, the two mandated territories became Cameroon under the UK, and Cameroun under the French. The main languages became English and French respectively.
When the time came for the European powers to begin transitioning their African colonies to independence between 1956 and 1962, the United Nations Trusteeship Council instructed the UK to hold a referendum for the population of British Cameroon. The people were a given three options: (a) independence as a sovereign state; (b) join Nigeria; and (c) join French-speaking Cameroun in a federal relationship. The people voted to join Cameroun.
The new federal constitution gave west Cameroun significant autonomy, with its own parliament, security force, and the right to elect the federal Vice President. The Federal Government, based in Yaoundé, controlled the currency, the central bank, national defense and foreign affairs.
On May 20, 1972, the total population of Cameroun, French and English speaking, were called to vote in a new referendum. The choice was to maintain the existing federation, or abolish it and form a new unitary state. Since the French-speakers outnumbered Anglophones three-to-one, the unitary state option was overwhelmingly adopted.
The referendum’s results were accepted without initial reservation by the Anglophone population of Cameroon and by the international community. In retrospect, however, the referendum was a violation of the original United Nations mandate.
The English-speaking population of west Cameroon voted to enter into a federal system. Only they could decide whether or not to leave the federal system to enter into a unitary system. If consulted at the time, the International Court in The Hague would certainly have invalidated the 1972 referendum.
Until the 1990s, the English-speaking peoples of West Cameroon did not experience major changes in their lives. But through successive regime changes in Yaoundé, Anglophone Cameroonians increasingly began to complain about discrimination and linguistic repression.
Political tensions slowly boiled until recently, when anti-regime violence erupted. The response of the Cameroonian government has been harsh. Security forces have shoot-to-kill orders.
The international community may wish to give the government in Yaoundé some friendly advice: work to restore the original federal system, creating a stronger Cameroonian state in which both the Anglophone and Francophone people enjoy reasonable self-determination while building a shared future.
Prolonged conflict will split the country along identity and geographic lines while damaging its economic and regional prospects. The nation – which has come so far in such a short time – should not jeopardize its progress and stability with an authoritarian crackdown.
Herman J. Cohen is a former U.S. ambassador who served as United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993.